rban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 2 personnel search the damaged homes on Fort Myers Beach. Tribune News Service
Michael Hiltzik, Tribune News Service
In a world where Republicans set political standards, one could expect that migrants would be abandoned in remote places without hope of succor and that funding for infrastructure construction and disaster relief would be provided only to GOP-led communities.
We don’t live in that world because political and humanitarian counterbalances exist to GOP policies. “Republicans count on their enemies not to reciprocate their callous nihilism,” observes political scientist Scott Lemieux of the University of Washington and the Lawyers, Guns & Money group blog. The phenomenon has been vividly visible in recent days and weeks. Florida Republican politicians including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio have pleaded for federal disaster assistance in the wake of Hurricane Ian, while evading questions about why they voted against similar aid for northeastern states hammered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (DeSantis voted against Sandy aid as a freshman congressman in 2013.)
DeSantis and his fellow Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona undoubtedly know that the pain they’re inflicting on defenseless migrants by flying and busing them to other states will be limited because humanitarian agencies will be mustered to care for the migrants — never mind that their jobs are complicated by the lack of notice from the DeSantis/Abbott/Ducey travel agencies.
Florida’s desperate need for federal assistance in Ian’s wake has put that state’s congressional representatives on the spot, given their record of opposing federal disaster spending in the past, when it was needed by other regions.
Rubio, who was among the 36 Republicans who voted against a $49-billion disaster relief package after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012 but appealed for Hurricane Ian aid, tried to sidestep accusations of hypocrisy.
Appearing on CNN, Rubio cited “a roof for a museum in Washington, DC, and fisheries in Alaska that had nothing to do with disaster relief.”
To her credit, interviewer Dana Bash pointed out that the Washington roof had been damaged in the storm. She could have gone further: The appropriation was for the roofs of several Smithsonian Institution museums that were so damaged that the Smithsonian’s priceless collections were threatened. The Alaska fisheries he mentioned, specifically for Chinook salmon, were among six coastal fisheries for which failures were declared in 2012 because of natural disasters, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In other words, Rubio was just blowing smoke. Rubio and other Florida Republicans, including Scott and Rep. Matt Gaetz, paid lip service to the need for federal disaster aid for their state — but failed to lift a finger to pass a short-term funding bill that would provide $15 million in short-term financing for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Scott and Gaetz both voted against the measure when it came before their chambers on Sept. 29 and 30; Rubio didn’t bother showing up for the roll call. The lawmakers were explicit about their opposition: To them, it was all about partisan politics. In a Sept. 19 letter, Gaetz and his House GOP colleagues pledged to vote against the stopgap spending bill because it would serve the Biden administration’s agenda of “empowering authoritarian bureaucrats at agencies like the IRS and FBI ... imposing COVID-19 mandates that shut down schools and are forcing our military service members out of their jobs, and advancing self-destructive energy policies.”
The letter continued, “Any legislation that sets the stage for a ‘lame duck’ fight on government funding gives Democrats one final opportunity to pass that agenda.”
On the Senate side, Scott joined his GOP colleagues in pledging to vote against the stopgap spending plan “so that we do not enable the Biden administration’s reckless progressive agenda.”
Republicans undoubtedly know that if they had the power to make these voting positions stick, it could have been disastrous for them. A government shutdown might have resulted, inflicting pain and suffering on households coast to coast.
But there was no real risk of that because sufficient majorities existed in both houses to ensure that the measures would pass — the House passed the 2013 Sandy aid package by a 241-180 vote and the Senate by a 62-32 vote. The House voted 220 to 201 to pass the stopgap funding measure last month, with 10 Republicans in the majority, and the Senate voted 72 to 25, with 16 Republican senators in the majority and three Republicans, including Rubio, not voting.
For the dissenting Republicans, these were free votes. They could swank about as warriors for fiscal responsibility, without the prospect that their posing would cause any adverse consequences they could be blamed for. It’s proper to observe that the lawmakers who vote against funding bills like these aren’t above taking credit for the money when it arrives in their states. DeSantis, for example, called the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan, a Biden administration pandemic relief package, “Washington at its worst” and blamed it for higher inflation. Out in the hustings, however, DeSantis bragged about a $400-million rural broadband project that he said would be funded from the state budget. The money, in fact, came from the American Rescue Plan. (“Some people have no shame,” Biden riposted, without mentioning DeSantis.)
As it happens, according to the Orlando Sentinel, federal funding has been crucial for the Florida state budget, helping to pay for such programs as “climate ‘resiliency’ against rising waters, road projects, broadband expansion, college training programs and tax cuts.”
DeSantis, who finds himself in the unfamiliar position of a supplicant for federal funding that he has disdained in the past, was remarkably ungracious about the federal response to Hurricane Ian. Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program on Thursday, DeSantis said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Biden administration would come through with emergency aid. In fact, Biden had approved an emergency declaration for the state four days earlier.
One could almost imagine DeSantis clenching his teeth at the necessity of being nice to Biden; he must have mistaken the current president for the former president, who was known to demand expressions of personal fealty from state and local officials in return for federal assistance.
The truth is that the chance that Biden would withhold aid to the people of Florida because their governor chooses to portray the president as some sort of a socialist tyrant was zero. That’s not Biden’s style, nor is it the style of a functioning federal government. It’s a fair bet, however, that DeSantis and his fellow Republicans will go right back to loudly disparaging Democrats as heedless spendthrifts as soon as their aid money is disbursed, counting on their constituents’ short memories and gullibility.
The victims of disasters, natural and political alike, are just lucky that responsible and humane officials and agencies will continue to clean up the mess left by the performative cruelty of political o
pportunists. They’ll get disaster aid to where it’s needed and humanitarian assistance to those cast adrift because that’s how humanitarianism is defined.
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